Yazz Ahmed

Yazz Ahmed

Yazz was a Jazzlines Fellow in 2014/15 supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation

When and how did you come to start playing music?

It wasn’t until I moved to England that I was given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I was nine years old and starting at a new school in London. My mother asked me which instrument I’d like to learn and I quickly responded, “the trumpet”!

My maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, was a successful jazz trumpeter in the 1950’s. He played with John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and Ronnie Scott, amongst many others, and later became a record producer for Pye and then Phillips Records. I looked up to Terry, he was my hero, and so the trumpet was the instrument I was drawn to.

Tell us a bit about the path of your musical development.

I clearly remember my first trumpet, which was given to me by the Merton Music Foundation. I couldn’t wait to get it home and show my family. It was so shiny! I also remember the vivid fluffy blue lining in the case!

My grandfather gave me my very first lesson, after which I felt a great sense of achievement - I could play the C major scale straight away - this was going to be fun!

After I had earned the trust of my family, Terry gave me his own trumpet to use instead of the one the music service gave to me. It was an Olds Ambassador and sounded beautiful. I still have it actually, maybe I should revisit it soon.

I later began playing in the local youth bands in Merton, London. I have many fond memories of the tours we went on, playing at fantastic venues like the Royal Albert Hall and performing at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships every year, and sneaking into Centre Court to see Venus Williams play.

To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in becoming a professional musician until I was in my last year at 6th form college. I desperately wanted to study jazz at a music college in London, but I wasn’t ready, so I decided to enrol onto a regular music degree course at Kingston University. I worked extremely hard to improve my jazz knowledge and playing, dreaming of getting into a music college one day.

The hard work paid off and I received a scholarship to study a Masters Degree in Jazz at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I was ecstatic! My experience there was a real eye opener for me, mixing with the elite musicians of my generation in all genres- I really had to step up my game to keep up with them.

After graduating, I set up my own band and started writing my own music - I was desperate to get my voice heard, to say something personal, which in a crowded music scene, where everyone is shouting all at once, can be quite a challenge. It took me quite a while to find my true voice, although it is always evolving, but started when I began rediscovering my Bahraini roots.

Reconnecting with the music of my childhood has been a major inspiration to me, both in my life and in the way I write music.

How did you get into jazz and why did you choose to focus on studying/playing jazz?

It was Terry, my grandfather, who introduced me to jazz. I loved the sounds and the spirit of the music on the records he would play to me.

I’ve always enjoyed the freedom in jazz and the openness for self-expression. Jazz can be a very individualistic type of music, allowing opportunities for the musicians to tell a story through improvising.

These elements really resonated with me and I found that studying and playing jazz enabled me to express my own personal thoughts and feelings I would normally find difficult to articulate.

When you are composing, what key elements do you aim to incorporate in your music?

Narrative, the shape and direction of the story, and leaving space for improvising, letting the music breathe are all very important elements for me though this also depends on the project.

Some of my compositions have been inspired by people or places which can take me on a different journey during the creative process.

For example, one of the movements from my Women of the Women suite, Polyhymnia, was dedicated to Malala Yousafzai, which was inspired by her powerful and emotional speech at the United Nations some years ago. Her voice has a natural rhythm to it and so I wanted to reflect this through my composition by writing melodies to fit her words as well as including some short quotes that really resonated deep within me, which we then chanted during the premiere on International Women’s Day in 2015.

Which musicians have had a key influence on you and your music?

A few years after completing my master’s degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I began to feel that something was missing from my musical landscape. I’ve been looking within, trying to work out who I am, seeking a way to express myself by developing a musical language which resonates with my growing sense of identity.This all began when I more or less stumbled across a record that changed my perspective on jazz.

The music on Blue Camel, by oud player, Rabih Abou-Khalil, spoke to me at a subconscious level. Here were the sounds and flavours of the music which, as a child in Bahrain, had deeply entered my psyche, but now blended with the jazz disciplines I had been studying for so long. Something really clicked and I felt compelled to explore this new world.

Thanks to opportunities I’ve had performing and recording in the fields of rock, ambient music and sound design, I’ve been introduced to some incredible musicians. Jason Singh and These New Puritans in particular have stirred my imagination, my tastes have developed and I’ve now reached a point where I feel I have discovered a very personal new sound.

Jason got me hooked on a John Hassell record called, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street, which has been massively influential to how I now hear and think about music.

If you were introducing a friend to jazz music for the first time, what 3 artists or albums would you recommend to them?

Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is a good place to start. It’s a classic. I’d recommend listening to as many of his albums as possible. Miles was always creating new and exciting music, and experimenting with many different genres throughout his career. There’s something there for everyone.

I would also recommend listening to guitarist, Pat Metheny, which takes us into the 1990’s, then something modern and more current. Nonagram by Soweto Kinch is a good album to check out.

Please tell us a bit about an upcoming/future project.

Recently I’ve been working on two very exciting recordings - my Women of the World suite, Polyhymnia, partly funded by PRSF, and the other, my second release, La Saboteuse, which will be rolled out in four streaming chapters with a full physical and digital release in May. Each chapter features a different work of art created by the extremely talented Sophie Bass which together will form the cover of the gatefold vinyl LP.

The music on the album is a continuation of my exploration of the music of my Middle Eastern heritage fused with jazz harmony and improvisation. But it also reflects the influence of the musical discoveries I have made in my recent collaborations with creative musicians from the field of rock, ambient music and sound design. These include the incorporation of live electronics, manipulation of found sounds, and creating textures in the studio by overdubbing additional instruments such as Dave Manington's ‘sponge bass’, Samuel Hällkvist's guitar loops, and layers of extra percussion from Corrina Silvester.

On a spiritual level the music explores the relationship between my conscious self and my inner saboteur, the voice of my self-destructive inclinations, and the demons that I’m sure we all have experienced in our lives. The music has been described as, ‘Psychedelic Arabic-jazz, sonically outstanding, and evocative’.

This album is also a document of the gradual development of my various live bands over the last 5 years - into what has become my musical family.

I’ve also been commissioned by Issie Barrett, with help from PRSF, to write a piece of music for Issie’s new dectet which I am very honoured to be a member of. The project will feature nine other commissions from some of the band members and other prolific female creators chosen by Issie. My composition will be inspired by the ever-changing structures of the universe. We plan to tour the music later this year and in 2018.

What key advice would you give to young female musicians planning to build a career as professional musician?

The advice I would give is, don’t give up! If you truly want something and it means a lot to you, go for it, but be prepared to get knocked down from time to time. I’ve had many moments when I’ve wanted to give up, but my passion for music has always triumphed. My setbacks have made me a stronger and wiser person. I can’t imagine doing anything else besides music.